Public policy

Muzzling the Voice

The National Party reverts to form

The National Party, emboldened by its luck in the Victorian election, has come out refusing to support a Voice to Parliament. On the ABC’s Breakfast program David Littleproud gave an amazingly unconvincing reason for the party’s opposition, claiming that The Voice “won’t close the gap”, implying that for some reason accessible only to followers of the National Party’s mode of reasoning, passing the referendum could set back the lot of indigenous Australians.

The only coherent reason Littleproud offered was that he believed executive government, not parliament, should be responsible for policies toward First Nations Australians. Parliamentary democracy has never been one of the Nationals’ strong commitments. (8 minutes)

The Guardian’s Lorena Allam tries to see some logic in Littleproud’s stance: Why do the Nationals oppose the indigenous voice and do their arguments stand up to scrutiny?. Are they simply trying to confuse us, in the hope that confused people will vote “no”?

On Tuesday night’s 730 program a number of Aboriginal program managers, all enthusiastic about a Voice, illustrated that the practical programs in which they’re involved – school education, development of building trades, maternal care – are examples of the types of programs that can be expanded through the workings of a Voice. What do grassroots Indigenous community leaders think about the Voice to Parliament?. (8 minutes)

Littleproud claimed that indigenous people he had consulted did not want a Voice, but elders in his own electorate report that he hasn’t consulted anyone about a Voice. He asserts that in view of wide differences in indigenous people’s living conditions, locations, cultures, and physical needs, no one body can speak for their interests – a valid point – but he seems to have considered Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price as a spokesperson for all indigenous people. And if the Uluru Statement is a guide to the ideas behind a Voice, its architects have done an outstanding job in bringing those interests together.

It is hard to understand what has driven Littleproud down this path. Because he hasn’t consulted widely he is now confronted by dissent in his own party and from former Liberal Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt. The ABC’s David Speers believes the Nationals’ aim is to pressure the Liberal Party to follow suit. This is about the National Party’s concerns to hold its seats in non-metropolitan Queensland.

The Liberal Party is dragged along

Politically, this presents another problem for the embattled Liberal Party. To date the federal parliamentary party has tended to held back.

But as The Guardian’s Josh Butler points out, John Howard is urging the party to take a strong “no” position. John Hewson, writing in The Saturday Paper, is particularly critical of Howard’s interference in the issue: John Howard’s anti-Voice strategy. He sees Howard’s move as part of a strategy to ensure that the party is “truly conservative”, and to ensure that Dutton keeps the faith. He concludes with a warning:

Elections are won and lost in the centre of politics, and by taking stands on important issues clearly in the national interest. I believe that pushing further and further to the political right, as many expect Dutton to do, would be counterproductive to the longer-term viability of the party. Unfortunately, some key players in the party have easily succumbed to the nonsense of the monsters after dark on Sky News, who run the line that support for anything that they disagree with is “woke”. With friends like this, the party doesn’t need enemies.

Such is the illogicality of the National Party’s opposition to a Voice that one is drawn to believe that they are forging alliances with racists.

Principles, not positions

Opposition leader Peter Dutton seems to be taking the National Party’s bait, arguing that there is a bewildering lack of detail in the constitutional proposal, implying that it is too open-ended to be supported.

Pat Dodson correctly points out that the referendum is about the principle of providing indigenous Australians a voice to Parliament. Once the referendum is passed it is up to Parliament to legislate on the specific form the Voice will take, a form that will inevitably evolve over time. The Liberal Party, and any other party or independents, will have an opportunity to have their say once Parliament gets down to the job of designing the structure and governance for a Voice. Constitutions are about principles: their provisions should be no more specific than absolutely necessary lest they unintentionally bind future governments.

We should be discussing the principles behind the Voice proposal, but unfortunately a debate about principles is almost alien to Australia’s political culture. Journalists’ favourite question to politicians is “What is your position on X?”, rather than “What principles are guiding your proposal on X?” It’s a symptom of an immature political culture, where the statesperson who tries to elevate the political debate to a higher level is often dismissed as an irrelevant wanker.

In this regard it has been disappointing to hear Patricia Karvelas, one of the ABC’s best journalists, fall into this pattern of questioning. In a series of interviews on Friday morning she gave the impression that there is something strange or weird about a political debate on principles, de facto giving support to Dutton’s stance.

How will these opportunistic arguments affect the outcome?

There is a fear that Littleproud’s opposition will kill the referendum. It certainly won’t ease its passage, but we should not be too bound by the assumption that unless a referendum proposal enjoys bipartisan support a referendum will lose. Politically the National Party is a minor player, particularly when it is in opposition, and it is not even represented in four of the nation’s eight states and territories. The Western Australian Nationals, a separate party, intend to support a Voice. And the term “bipartisan” has lost much of its meaning in the 23 years since Howard strategically killed the republic referendum: the political landscape is now much more complex. So too are the funding channels, as the “Teal” independents have demonstrated.

Writing in The Conversation, Gregory Melleuish of the University of Wollongong examines the question Could the Nationals’ refusal to support a Voice to Parliament derail the referendum? He goes through the conditions that help or hinder referendum proposals, and they are about much more than the presence or absence of “bipartisan” support.

Perhaps the Nationals’ move may even precipitate some to donate to support the “Yes” campaign, possibly out of contempt for the National Party in view of the damage they have inflicted on our country over many decades. Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTAR) is calling for donations, but not specifically directed to the Voice campaign.[1]

1. ANTAR’s website says it is collecting funds “so Voice, Treaty and Truth continues to be elevated and supported across Australia” – not very specific.

Closing the Gap: progress in some areas, retreat in others

The first Commonwealth Closing the Gap Report has been published. This is not the first release of data covering the gap between indigenous and other Australians: the Productivity Commission has been providing data regularly in its Closing the Gap Information Repositoryregularly updating progress on 17 socio-economic indicators.

This document is mainly about the policy measures the Commonwealth is taking to close the gap.

The ABC’s Dana Morse has a summary of the report’s main findings (which are the same as those produced by the Productivity Commission). There is progress in some areas – children’s birth weights, preschool enrolments, children in detention, and the amount of land subject to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s legal rights or interests. But on four important indicators – suicide rates, adult incarceration, child removal and children’s school readiness – indigenous Australians are going backwards.

Power to the people

Last weekend’s Saturday Extra had an interview with the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood about the plan by Victoria’s government to re-establish the state-owned State Electricity Commission as a major player in the electricity market, particularly in relation to accelerating the state’s transition to renewable energy while controlling costs: Power to the people (13 minutes).

Tony Wood is sceptical about the proposal, but not entirely dismissive. His reasons are covered in the interview and also in a Grattan Institute media release: Will bringing back the SEC benefit Victorians? He states that the private sector could achieve these worthwhile ends if we had a well-functioning market.

Perhaps Wood underestimates the extent to which the electricity market – the National Electricity Market – embodies a set of market failures. The businesses transmitting and distributing electricity, accounting for half our electricity bills, have made massive profits through a flawed regulatory process. That process allows them to enjoy a high “risk premium” on their investment, in what must be one of the world’s safest markets, and they have accumulated massive financial resources to defend their privilege. Along the supply line are the “retailers” who were supposed to bring us pricing structures to allocate electricity more efficiently and fairly, but they have simply added a layer of expensive private bureaucracy to our bills.

Wood acknowledges that privatization of electricity has been unpopular. He writes:

Reincarnating the SEC is a popular policy – it got the biggest cheer during Dan Andrews’ victory speech on Saturday night. But it won’t contribute to the cheapest possible electricity for Victorians unless the government gives it a clear investment mandate and avoids the temptation to interfere in its management.

Universities – we can do better on equity

Peter Shergold, the soon-to-retire Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, is interviewed on Saturday Extra about the planned Universities Accord. (See the roundup of 19 November for a link to the government’s planned inquiry into universities and TAFE, a very wide-ranging inquiry to be headed by Mary O’Kane.)

He is concerned to see universities realize their potential as providing equality of access, an area where we have fallen down since 2008. He gives a plug for the University of Western Sydney, where the less well-off are well represented. It’s not just because UWS is located in western Sydney: achieving equity also takes hard work in encouraging households and high school students to consider a university education.

He is critical of the way our culture and university admission requirements have tended to imply that there is something superior in university education over education from technical institutions. He points to ways the two pathways to knowledge can intersect and be integrated, and to ways liberal and technical learning can come together. Students may have a vocational motivation for going to university, but along the way they should develop the capabilities to be active citizens, in a world where democracy is under challenge. (18 minutes)

He also has observations on university fees. Because they can be deferred, they do not convey strong price signals in guiding students’ choice of courses.

In praise of multi-employer wage deals

There has been some ill-informed criticism of multi-employer bargaining, emanating from those who cannot see beyond wage suppression as a path to domestic and international competitiveness.

The ABC’s Gareth Hutchens gathers and summarizes evidence for the benefits of multi-employer bargaining. His article Increase wages, improve bargaining for workers, and we'll reap the economic benefits? lists those individual and economy-wide benefits, in terms of improved macroeconomic performance, better employment and wage distribution, better gender equality, less burdensome compliance, and boosted investment in skills.

Similarly, writing in The Conversation Peter Martin is optimistic that the government’s industrial relations reforms will get wages for the low-paid moving: “Zombie” wage deals have hurt Australians for years. Here’s how new industrial relations laws could finally end your wage pain. Enterprise bargaining did well at first, allowing the benefits of increased productivity to be shared, but many agreements have expired, resulting in de-facto wage freezes – “zombie agreements” in Martin’s terms. Another aspect of our architecture, the awards system, has done well in preserving wage relativities in industries where they still set pay and conditions, but they do not necessarily relate to productivity.

He sees the new arrangements, involving multi-employer bargaining and a loosening of the “better off overall” test, as means to overcome these rigidities and pay freezes. He mentions one industry where employers and unions are already working to improve workplace standards in a way that won’t see complying firms undercut by employers with weaker standards.

Health – Covid-19

In this latest wave Covid-19 cases are still rising: reported cases are about 20 percent up on last week. The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 is rising, but the number of people in ICU is well down on previous waves, and provisional data on deaths suggests that abut 4 people a day are dying from or with Covid-19. In the peaks of the January and August waves around 70 to 80 people a day were dying.